Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Unbroken Chain"
By David Dodd
I think I have the very best true synchronicity story related to the Grateful Dead. An audacious claim, I know, but just listen to this.
When I was a student at UC Davis, in 1976 or 1977, in my very first year of being a Deadhead, I was getting ready to ride my bike in to campus from my apartment. I was humming a Grateful Dead song, and hopped onto the bike. Just as I stepped onto the pedals and started pushing, I was singing “Blue light rain, whoah, unbroken chain,” and at that very instant my bike chain snapped.
Over the years, I’ve heard many more synchronicity stories—I’d like it if you shared yours.
“Unbroken Chain” is, for me, one of the BIG songs in the Dead’s repertoire. Words by Bobby Petersen, music by Phil Lesh, it stands as one of most musically complex pieces they performed, and the fact that it was never, until 1995, performed live in concert by the Grateful Dead puts it into a unique category. The roar that went up from the audience when they broke it out at the Spectrum in Philadelphia on March 19 of that year virtually drowned out the first minute of the performance. It stayed in the live repertoire during that final tour, and was played in the penultimate spot in the second set of their last show on July 9, straight out of Drumz and into “Sugar Magnolia.” Ten live performances.
But the studio version on Mars Hotel always blows me away. The mysterious studio sounds that resemble jet planes taking off or water dripping, the incredible Garcia solo, the rapid changes in mood and the twists and turns of tempo and structure all combine for a wild ride. And Bobby Petersen’s lyric is right up there with some of Hunter’s best, for me.
The title has been taken up by a number of entities and events over the years—somehow it exemplifies something about the band. There was a fanzine called “Unbroken Chain,” started in 1986 by Laura Paul Smith and continued under the editorship of Dave Serrins, running for more than ten years. The Phil Lesh charitable foundation is called Unbroken Chain. And a large conference was held at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, a few years back, also called Unbroken Chain. Clearly, the phrase appeals to Deadheads in a big way.
In the Annotated Lyrics, I devote a half-column of annotation to the concept of “unbroken chain,” mostly as a theological construct relating to the transmission of authority. In Petersen’s lyric, the unbroken chain is “of you and me,” as well as “of sorrow and pearls,” “of sky and sea,” and “of the western wind.” Image after image in the lyric is put forth, each layering onto the other in a cumulative accretion of meaning. Like a pearl, maybe. For me, the imagery and the phrase “unbroken chain” together work to tell me to make my own meaning of what is around me, whether it be from loss, from sorrow, from the natural world, or from my fellow human beings.
Last week, I was at the Grateful Dead Archive at the UC Santa Cruz library, and there, in a glass case, was a lyrics sheet for “Unbroken Chain” with Garcia’s handwritten notes for the chords. Someday I have to head down to the Archive and spend some time with the Bobby Petersen papers.
For awhile, I speculated that Bobby Petersen may have been gay, what with the line about catching it when you try to love your brother. Probably not, but an apt line for our times, from a number of perspectives.
This song mentions lilacs, so it reminds me of my mother, whose birthday was this week. She would have been 90 on Monday. A few years ago I planted a lilac in my back yard in her memory, as the first plant in what has become my Grateful Dead theme garden. Kind of a fun idea, I think, to grows plants mentioned in Grateful Dead songs. So far, I have manzanita, lilacs, begonias, roses, and lilies. I’d like to add a magnolia. For years I have been unsuccessfully seeking a real American Beauty rose, but have had no luck as yet. Mangrove might be a bit tough, and a weeping willow would take up too much room.
In San Francisco, there’s a Shakespeare Garden in Golden Gate Park (I’m sure they have these in many places throughout the world), which has all the plants mentioned in Shakespeare. I would love to see a garden like that in Golden Gate Park for the Dead—a civic Grateful Dead Garden. There they could grow all the plants—barley, wheat, corn, and on and on. A weeping willow by the bank’s green edge. Hey, we can dream, can’t we?
I’m hoping for a conversation that could include synchronicity, gardens, authority, gay rights, and anything else that might be on your mind. Over to you!
So much to say about this song!! I can't believe I was lucky to be there the first time they played it in Philly and have enjoyed the beautiful extended jamming that's become the even more wonderful part of the song over the years. Saw a great version when sax player Greg Osby was sitting in with one of the bands post-Dead, b4 Furthur, in Camden NJ, that was amazing.
This was always one of my very favorite GD songs from first listening on Mars Hotel in the fall of 1973. I just was getting into meditating and the unique whirry sound during the break was something that some of the meditation gurus would talk about when describing "the inner sound"... for what that's worth..
I went to tons of shows in 73-74 and would always scream for Unbroken Chain but to no avail-- there were rumors that they sound checked it... who knows... finally they played it and since then it's become such a wonderful part of the band's repertoire.
Am I right that Phil has moved the lyrics around, during the last verse??
David, while I am very sensitive about gay issues (my son came out last year...), I think it's a stretch to say that the lyric about Love your Brother is about that. The lyrics are very much about religion... and I think how religion really doesn't really work... "
"Listening for the secret, searching for the sound But I could only hear the preacher and the baying of his hounds"... that is, yearning for the mystical but only hearing the preacher-man...
"They say love your brother but you will catch it when you try" ... again, what the religious people tell you "love thy brother as thyself" is the first commandment.... and he's saying... well, do the best you can..
"Ride out on a cold railroad and nail you to a cross".... another image about what the religious will do to you if you don't fit into their world
"They're telling me forgiveness is the key to every door".... again THEY are saying what to do, but it doesn't always work for the true seeker who lives outside the lines, as Bobby Petersen did....
this is such an incredibly beautiful song and the music really does sound like Lilac Rain....
That is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me, Jim!
I get Owsley rushes reading your blogs. Is this my flashback?
OK, we all know that our experience with this band is just loaded with synchronicity, but here's one of the more epic ones I experienced. It was after night two at Oxford Plains, 1988 and I was hanging around a campfire with a group of people who were all in a pretty psychedelicized stated. One of them, we'll call her Jane, was missing her supposed boyfriend, let's call him John Doe, who I knew quite well. I knew he was at the shows, but none of us had seen him all weekend, and most of us knew he was with another girl, so we expected him to lay low. She was really pissed that he had blown her off and was basically venting to all who listened about what a horrible person he was was and what she was going to do when she finally saw him again (assuming all the while that he was not at the show). I also knew that he was essentially a good guy, but had little self-control when it came to matters of the heart and that he really did love every woman that he was with, but he also found something compelling to love in every woman he met. So, yeah, he was a dog, but these guys are out there, along with women like that, too. It's part of who some people are. So, you just have love them for who they are, enjoy your time with them, but it's asking for trouble to fall in love with them and expect them to change. It was also the first time I'd heard Foolish Heart, so it was right on topic. So, I'm listening to Jane go on and on and there is a girl right by her side who's obviously in the 15th dimension, listening intently to every word that Jane said. Finally, I was feeling so much compassion for Jane, knowing that she might go through this again, and so much compassion for all the people who had given their love to someone who is essentially good but unreliable that I said to her "Jane, I'd like to apologize for all the John Doe's in the world." And right at that moment, out stepped John, saying "No need to apologize for me!" with absolutely perfect timing. The girl who had been listening to every word turned to him and said "Oh, you're John Doe! Someone was just talking about you and they said.....!" and stopped as the full inertia of all that Jane had said in the previous hour caught up with her. Of course, Jane went off with John for rest of the night and all was forgiven, but the idea that out of 180,000 people hanging outside in the dark, scattered everywhere, John could have found us and stepped up at that very moment and right into the conversation was staggering.
Earlier that night, I was also caught by a moment of synchronicity that was elegant and awesome in how prosaic it was. The sun was going down, it was getting a little bit chillier and darker. I was watching one of the spotlight operators during a jam. He let go of his spotlight, leisurely took off his jacket, picked up a sweater, put it on, picked up his jacket it, put it on, zipped it up and then grabbed his spotlight and swung it around to catch Bobby as he stepped up to sing the final verse. He did everything with absolutely deliberateness, no hurry, and yet it was done at just the perfect moment to swing into action. These are the moments of synchronicity that happened all the time but that no one really noticed. It wasn't just Jerry that was channeling this stuff, it was all of us. This stuff happens all around us every day, we just need to pay attention. Perhaps that's the real legacy of the Grateful Dead.
every day :(
Picture Spring Tour '88, 1967 VW pop-up rollin' to .Atlanta - Hampton and I can't get enough Peggy-O. I've got the same three tapes with it playin' over and over my guy thinks I'm nuts, but I don't care. We arrive at the Hampton Coliseum- someone starts a kerfuffle at the gate. We're still outside as the Music starts!! Finally we make it in the last strains of NMB fade and I walk right though the parting sea of bodies and stand front row before Jerry. He paused looked directly at me gave a wink and a nod and broke into Peggy-O. I must confess that I'm crying as I write this,I miss him everyday.Needless to say my boyfriend nearly s..t himself. Another story that stands out in my mind. The last shows I attended before we lost Jerry, I was 3mons. pregnant with my 1st child.Memphis 95 after the show, I'm not sure which night,i'm talking to my friend Paul relating that I always think that one day I'll run into our old friend Marta in the lot. Back at the hotel someone turns on the TV , I hear a familiar voice and turn to see Marta on the screen. A documentary about the Rainbow Family was playing and there she was!
We're all connected ALL the time ..like David said we're just oblivious most of the time.
Peace-Love & Scarlett Begonias! Christie
Hello everyone. I think my favorite comment, speaking purely egotistically, is Old School Chuck saying that he may be warming up to my writing style. I know I am kind of stream of consciousness-- that is, I am not particularly oriented towards picking a thesis, explaining the arguments, and wrapping everything up with a bow. But hey, the world never works that way in my experience. And my brain is basically the attic of my life--I rummage around and find all kinds of cloudy dreams unreal all the time.
Which makes me think that all the other comments about synchronicity have to be my favorite kind of Grateful Dead experience to read or hear about. Driving to Dark Star! Absolutely. Sun breaking through during Althea! (I think I was at that one and I remember the roar of acknowledgement!) Serendipity, coincidence, luck, or their opposites, are things we pay more attention to when we are fined-tuned to our environment. I think these things are there all the time, and in fact, maybe there's nothing particularly "special" about them. But finding those things in life, and in art, makes life worth living to me.
I'm glad Unbroken Chain is in the Furthur repertoire these days, along with all the other stuff the Dead never seemed to do. Here's to more!
I found the Stanford show on archive.org that I mentioned earlier:
Turn it up, the crowd reaction I referred to is pretty cool. Great memories!
edit: listening to the rest of the show, it's a keeper! I suggest you download it!
For those who haven't experienced it yet, the "Unbroken Chain" at Furthur's 1/19/2013 show (Sweetwater, Mill Valley) may be the best version I've ever heard. 15+ minutes of aural bliss, a really poignant version of a cool song. In addition to excellent instrumental work, it contains the finest vocal performance by Phil that I can recall in his 70+ years. Worth checking out.
I've told this story before, but it bears repeating here as we have drifted into a conversation about weird GD coincidences. I attended a Garcia solo acoustic show in Boston (82?). Great experience all around except one bonehead who kept yelling, "Gaaaarcia!" during quiet moments. Anyway, someone gave me an audience recording of the show and during "Gomorrah" just after Jerry sings, "I heard a voice telling me to flee," someone near the taper is having an argument about who should be sitting where, and says angrily, "Get the f**k out of here!"
That aside, "Unbroken Chain" has always been an unusual side-trip in the repertoire for me. I love it in the context of the studio album, and it still makes me smile during a Furthur show these days. I think I'll crank it up on the way to work this morning. Thanks!